19 July 2017 by victoriaknowe
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to inherit practically the entire works of W. Somerset Maugham, and he quickly became one of my favourite authors. I often feel a deep affinity with Somerset Maugham’s protagonists, perhaps because many of the feelings and observations he mentions and discusses are so universal that many people could relate, or perhaps his characters tend to be people that I in particular can relate to. However, despite this, and despite owning almost all of his works, I still haven’t read more than a handful. Partly because they’re all in storage in England and I’m in Austria… but more because I hate to rush through the works of a beloved author and be left with nothing more to look forward to. (People who sympathise with this may also note that I still haven’t read all of Jane Austen’s novels. I am saving Emma for a rainy day.)
Reading Ashenden was a treat – and not just because of the author. Believe it or not, it’s the first actual book I’ve read in a while. Although it’s a sad thing to admit, when it comes to a person like myself who is often on the move, the sheer convenience of e-books outweighs the slightly distasteful feeling of replacing the real thing with a digital version. But this read was a return to basics in more ways than one. Mine was a beautiful old copy that I found at an outdoor market in Sweden. Even better, the previous owner – an amazingly dedicated Swedish person – apparently read it all the way through and industriously made notes in the margins about the meanings of words that they didn’t understand, so I was even able to improve my Swedish along the way.
But even if the notes hadn’t been useful to me in this way, I love second hand books for that very possibility of finding notes or forgotten bookmarks along the way. It gives me a nice feeling to think that someone else appreciated the book before me. Up until now, my favourite experience of this type was finding a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in Amsterdam, where the previous owner had obviously sampled a little too much of the locally available narcotics and made accordingly obscure notations in the margins.
To the novel itself…
Anyhow, reading this book was a real reminder of why I love Somerset Maugham so much. It’s more a series of episodes or interlinked short stories than a novel. They deal with the experiences of Ashenden, an Englishman and writer who becomes a spy during the first world war as his profession, cool head and affinity for languages put him in an excellent position for being effective in such a post. Ashenden is a sort of shy and inhibited James Bond character. He generally keeps his wits about him and is a good actor to boot. Most interestingly he is quite removed from his situation and the assignments he gets, feeling neither burning patriotism nor fear about the dangerous nature of his work, but rather seeing it as an opportunity to learn more about the world and about human nature. He treats the whole thing as a jolly game, in stark contrast to many of the deeply earnest and fanatical characters he meets along the way.
The book starts off with fairly unremarkable assignments, passing on information and investigating certain people for example, and then the work grows in difficulty and significance as the book goes on. Some of the later episodes seems a little over-romanticised and weren’t quite as believable. There was a part towards the end where Ashenden is supposed to have fallen in love, which seemed particularly laughable, but in the end it actually seemed like an excuse for the author to be a bit sarcastic about women and relationships. The book was an interesting glimpse into the work (in those days) of the secret service and what it was like to work as a spy. You would only ever know about your part in a long chain of sending and receiving information, and often have no idea about the end result, so some of the episodes are rather dissatisfying, leaving you with a sense of “…but what happened then?”, but that’s the whole point, because as a spy you’d almost never know what the end result was.
As always, Somerset Maugham managed to introduce some startlingly clear observations on human nature, in particular a brilliant speech about human vanity (see below) and an exemplary tale about not being scared to seize the moment and go for what you want. Bravo!
“All sensible people know that vanity is the most devastating, the most universal, and the most ineradicable of the passions that afflict the soul of man, and it is only vanity that makes him deny its power. It is more consuming than love. With advancing years, mercifully, you can snap your fingers at the terror and the servitude of love, but age cannot free you from the thraldom of vanity. Time can assuage the pangs of love, but only death can still the anguish of wounded vanity. Love is simple and seeks no subterfuge, but vanity cozens you with a hundred disguises. It is part and parcel of every virtue: it is mainspring of courage and the strength of ambition; it gives constancy to the lover and endurance to the stoic; it adds fuel to the fire of the artist’s desire for fame and is at once the support and the compensation of the honest man’s integrity; it leers even cynically in the humility of the saint. You cannot escape it, and should you take pains to guard against it, it will make use of those very pains to trip you up. You are defenseless against its onslaught because you know not on what unprotected side it will attack you. Sincerity cannot protect you from its snare nor humour from its mockery.”
from Ashenden or The British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham